Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe knew that when he switched off the fourth-and-2 play Tennessee Tech stopped in the second quarter of Saturday’s 21-14 loss, but the circumstances screamed for him to go for it.
The Gamecocks were at Tech’s 36, a veritable no-man’s land for a punt, with plenty of field behind them. They had short yards to gain. And there was limited time left in the half for a Tech offense that hadn’t been moving the ball to put together a sustained drive — and plenty in the game for them to make amends — if they didn’t make it.
Given all that, Crowe said Sunday if he had it all to do from there again, he would go for it again. And he’d go for it again if the Gamecocks (5-3, 4-1 OVC) find themselves under similar circumstances in the future.
“I don’t think we were out of our gourd with what we did,” Crowe said. “There are very few games we don’t go for it on fourth down at some point and I probably do more of that than most people do.
“We have a consistent pattern of dealing with it … and it’s tied to field position and distance. If we’d have been at the 50, I wouldn’t have done it. If there were six minutes left, I wouldn’t have done it. If the distance were longer, I wouldn’t have done it. We’ve been consistent with who we are. If you’re greater than two yards you’re in desperation and we weren’t in that mode.”
The Gamecocks have tried for first-down yardage on fourth down at least once in every game this season except Eastern Illinois and 194 times since Crowe took over as head coach in 2000 (converting 99), but they have done it comparatively less these last six seasons than his first six. They went for it 19 times last year — the most since 2005 — but fewer than 10 times in each of the two seasons with Ryan Perrilloux at quarterback (5-for-9 and 4-for-8).
They are six of 10 this year after Saturday — ranked fourth in the OVC — but have failed to convert their last three attempts (and their last three in two seasons against Tech).
Their quality control goal is 75 percent. Some attempts are desperation bringing the success rate down, but short yardage situations should bring a higher percentage.
On fourth-and-2 or less from inside their opponents’ territory, the Gamecocks are 11 of 17 since 2008, and 36 of 56 since 2003 when they joined the OVC. They were 11 of 13 in those situations in 2004, the last time they won the league.
“When you go for it on fourth down it’s like you get a turnover,” Crowe said. “It adds another possession and if you’re not getting enough possessions, that’s a way to get one back. It’s sort of a manufactured turnover. Some years you play for that extra possession if you’re not getting that turnover.”
Crowe accepted the blame for Saturday’s decision. He initially was going to run a power play with a running back, but during Tech’s timeout he switched it to a run for quarterback Coty Blanchard. The Golden Eagles closed off the outside, forcing Blanchard to cut back inside, where they made the stop.
“It really doesn’t make sense how they (Tech’s defense) were lined up,” Crowe said. “I’m not so sure they weren’t confused, which if they were they just fell into some dumb luck.
“That was a very one-of-a-kind circumstance. The percentages were in our favor and … (Tech) happened to be where luck would have it be their way.”
Perhaps more disappointing to Crowe than his offense not converting was watching Tech score on his defense once it took over on downs with 3:13 left in the half. The Golden Eagles found openings in JSU’s defense and covered the necessary 65 yards in seven plays to earn a 7-7 halftime tie.
Then they put together time-consuming touchdown drives on their next two possessions to take a 21-14 lead early in the fourth quarter that JSU threatened but couldn’t overcome.
“We ought to be able to keep them from scoring if we don’t make it,” Crowe said. “That’s the part that doesn’t hold up and the reason it didn’t is such an emotional charge. If you’re a team that goes for it on fourth down, you’ve got to be the kind that responds emotionally if you get put back on the field.”
The Eastern Kentucky team JSU plays this week is ranked second in the OVC in fourth-down conversions and fourth in fourth-down conversion defense, but the Colonels (5-3, 4-1) have gone for it only eight times this season and have given up the second-most conversions in the league (10) against the most attempts (19).
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.